WASHINGTON – Federal funding for child welfare should be overhauled to enable more children to live with families while reducing the amount of time kids spend in state care, two major foundations have recommended in a proposal.
The proposal, by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation and the St. Louis-based Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, also calls for eliminating federal outlays for kids’ stays in emergency shelters and in group homes that do not offer treatment for mental illness.
Preferably, the proposal says, children should live with relatives or with others close to them such as teachers, neighbors or coaches.
In the proposal, the two child welfare reform organizations criticized the “arcane federal financing structure that fails to support or provide incentives for the best practices we now know are essential to improving the well-being of children.”
Under the proposal, overall federal funding for foster care would remain stable but be realigned to reflect the two organizations’ priorities, shifting emphasis away from institutional care such as non-therapeutic group homes and emergency shelters.
“Every child deserves a family for life.” Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said at a Capitol Hill briefing on the proposal. “We need to align our financing systems with a sole goal – a forever family for every child.”
The proposal said removing children from their parents’ care should be considered a “last resort when all reasonable efforts have been made to support parents to safely care for their children.”
Foster care, the proposal said, should be viewed only as a “temporary, emergency intervention” and “child welfare agencies must have a sense of urgency to address the parental challenges that led to removal [of a child from parents] or to find a stable and permanent alternative family.”
Recasting the federal spending role likely would prompt states to rethink priorities.
The Washington briefing drew more than 150 policymakers, child welfare experts, children’s advocates and others seeking to improve the performance of the child welfare system for children and families in a country with some 400,000 foster children.
McCarthy said the proposal is designed to be implemented as a single package of increased spending in some areas and cuts in others and not as an “ala carte menu.”
The recommendations come amid pressure from some to reduce child welfare spending, heightening the urgency of implementing the proposal, McCarthy said
“The cost of doing nothing is now far greater than ever before,” he said. “The time to act is now.”
In keeping with the proposal’s goal of moving kids out of foster care and into family or kin settings, the proposal would limit reimbursement for foster care placement – now unlimited—to three years.
The proposal also calls for eliminating federal reimbursement for children placed in non-therapeutic shelter care or group homes, which can have anywhere from a handful to 100 kids. Reimbursement for such stays is now unlimited.
“We shouldn’t be warehousing kids. We should be meeting their needs,” Rob Geen, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s director of policy reform and advocacy, told Youth Today.
Geen said children sometimes spend nine months in emergency shelters designed only for 24- to 48-hour stays while a more permanent placement is found.
Residential facilities providing mental health treatment, which now receive unlimited reimbursement, would receive no reimbursement for children under 13, and reimbursement for treatment in such facilities would cover a maximum of one year for older youth.
The proposal seeks to ensure foster families have the training and support they need to raise children well.
Unlicensed relatives and others with close relationships to children can now receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grants, but not federal foster care reimbursement. The proposal would enable these caregivers to be licensed and thus receive the reimbursement.
In addition, the proposal would enable foster parents to continue receiving reimbursement when a child is temporarily out of a home to receive residential treatment.
Geen said that would help prevent foster parents from filling the foster home bed of a child in residential treatment in order to maintain the stream of reimbursement, which could eliminate that child’s spot in the foster home.
Speaking of such foster homes, William A. Thorne, a retired Utah State Court of Appeals judge and one the members of a panel at the briefing, said: “We treat them like a hotel room. Instead, we need to be building these relationships [between foster parents and children].”
The proposal would also increase federal reimbursements to states for recruitment, development and support of foster families.
The proposal calls for increasing tax credits for those caring for teens, groups of siblings and children with special needs from $1,000 to $5,000.
That’s designed to increase care for such children, who are traditionally harder to place than others, while helping offset the expected decline in placements in non-therapeutic group and shelter care settings.
The proposal is also aimed at attracting and retaining more experienced workers to care for kids.
It calls for allowing child welfare caseworkers to receive educational loan forgiveness in four years instead of the current 10 years – a move Geen said should reduce high turnover and improve recruitment.
The proposal also calls for:
Broadening reimbursement for primary caseworkers to include all functions of the job. The current system denies reimbursement for non-clinical counseling of children and families, deemed critical to building relationships and thus improving care.
Allowing partial reimbursement for costs of training of front-line child welfare workers investigating complaints of abuse and neglect.
Eliminating complex income eligibility requirements for federal reimbursement. The current requirements are based on the income of parents from whom a child was removed.
Gary Stangler, executive director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, said at the briefing that shortcomings of the federal financing system for child welfare have been a source of frustration for decades.
“I’m really optimistic that we are ready to break out of this stalemate and push this agenda because it is an urgent situation,” Stangler said.